[Fade in on a small, modern office space with a number of desk stations scattered throughout. Several individuals are answering telephones in what appears to be some type of crisis counseling center. One of the walls prominently displays a life-size poster of Fenriz holding a copy of Enya’s Watermark with tears visible in his eyes. The poster’s caption reads: “FEELINGS ARE OKAY.” One of the telephones rings twice before it is answered by a woman wearing a fading Hellhammer t-shirt but thoughtfully examining a book of Phantom of the Opera songs scored for piano. She taps out the right hand line of “Prima Donna” and cradles the phone on her left shoulder.]
Hotline: Good morning, and thanks for calling the Serious Metalheads Embracing Their Embarrassing Taste Hotline. What seems to be bothering you today?
Obstkrieg: I, uh… Oh God, how do I even begin… I’ve been listening a lot lately, to, um, the new mumble mumble album.
H: I’m sorry, sir, but you’ll have to speak more clearly.
O: [Needlessly overdramatic sigh.] Alright, I’ve been listening to the latest Nightwish album, Imaginaerum, and I love it. I don’t want to, but I just can’t help it.
H: I understand, sir. We’re here to help. Can you give me an example of the problem?
O: Well, it’s like this. The first real song on the album is called “Storytime,” and I just can’t stop listening to it. It keeps tricking me into thinking that it’s perfect. But really, it’s not so much the whole song as it is the chorus, this soaring, catchy, circular, delicious, perfectly divine chorus. I…I want to make passionate love to the chorus on a bed with a down comforter. It makes me want to punch a dragon, or jump out a window and then fly away on an invisible jetpack. I want to be Julie Andrews at the crest of an Alp spinning around and around and singing this chorus at the top of my lungs, and then I want to curl up in a ball and weep like a child because it’s all just so precious and wonderful and lovely.
H: Well, that’s just one song for which you have an admittedly reckless and disturbing enthusiasm. Is that all that’s moving you about the album?
O: Well no, of course not, that just happens to be the high point, so it’s too bad that it’s the first real song out of the gates. But there are plenty of other places where I go all weak in the knees. One of the real outliers from previous Nightwish efforts is “Slow, Love, Slow,” which starts off all hushed lounge jazz, brushes on snare, smoke curling on velvet curtains. Anette Olzon shows off a wider range of vocal styles throughout the album than on 2007’s Dark Passion Play, but this tune lets her slip into femme fatale mode before the chorus drops any edge from her voice for an achingly simple, pure tone. But still, Nightwish is a band that can never really leave well enough alone, so before the song finishes, it gets a heavier backing and Olzon is impelled to go off on a bit of a melismatic tangent, albeit a bit more like a subdued Beyoncé than a “Great Gig in the Sky.”
Another highlight of the album (which is undoubtedly front-loaded) is “I Want My Tears Back,” which at times feels so crotch-punchingly goofy that I want to shut it off, and yet the songwriting is so rock-solid, and all the constituent pieces so naggingly catchy and just…pure class that I give in. I melt. Hands up, eyes closed, 5th Dimension “Let the Sun Shine”-type shit. But damn it all, these Finns don’t make it easy – the song’s lyrics most definitely reference a ‘mad march hare’ in an absolutely irresistible pre-chorus that pulls one of those ultra-smooth half-tempo jags for just a few bars. Oh, and what’s that? You’re wondering whether the song has a midsection with hand-claps and Celtic piping and a breakdown purely made for Riverdancing? Why yes, yes it does, and it’s awesome, and THAT DRIVES ME CRAZY.
H: Okay, I think I see where you’re coming from. But here’s the important question, sir: Why do you feel so badly for enjoying this? I mean, if you legitimately enjoy an album, why feel embarrassed? Why cloak your thoughts in ironic detachment, or, even worse, some kind of silly narrative construct?
O: I know I should really feel no shame, but this is symphonic pop metal in its purest, most stereotypically self-indulgent form. I don’t think it’s surprising that I’m having a bit of trouble assimilating my completely non-ironic enjoyment of this into my self-image. But that’s just the thing: This is the kind of ludicrous, never less than 100% over-the-top music that has a way of mercilessly battering all of my typical grouchy and skeptical defenses into a wheezing pulp. The concept and its execution are so completely contrived that it would normally drive me to fits of table-leg-gnawing rage, but because it seems so deadly sincere in its contrivance, I cannot help but swoon in spite of all my better angels. And the music is so sickly sweet and saturated, so meticulously and immaculately composed that it somehow ends up coming across as entirely guileless.
H: If it might help you, sir, could I ask whether there are any songs here that don’t reduce you to a quivering mass of suspect metal-mettle?
O: Ah, yes, thanks for reminding me that it’s not all Peter Pan and Alp-dancing. Bassist Marco Hietala’s gruff shouty vocals are a real buzz-kill, so a song like “Ghost River” that features him prominently is a bit of a drag. The mid-album head-scratcher “Scaretale” is also a pretty serious blemish. Its main opening and closing riff sections seem to be a little too self-consciously “heavy,” and halfway through it breaks into a foolish Danny Elfman-styled carnival section that bears no relation to the remainder of the song. Still, I suppose it takes either a pretty charitable or completely clueless band to write a song called “Turn Loose the Mermaids” that isn’t somehow a My Dying Bride spoof.
And in case you’re keeping score over there at the call center, in addition to boasting the lyric “the mermaids you turned loose brought back your tears,” the song also has a Morricone bridge replete with whistling, trumpets, and martial snare. In fact, that’s hardly the first time that Imaginaerum reminds a canny listener of Metallica’s S & M, except that where the Metallica album fell completely flat in its attempt to graft orchestral ‘sophistication’ onto songs that either didn’t need it or couldn’t handle it, all of these songs were quite clearly written for this larger-than-life ensemble setting. That means, of course, that the more traditional metal instruments – bass, drums, and especially guitar – are frequently treated as just another color in the palette rather than major focal points.
H: If I might be so bold, sir, it sounds like you’re feeling a little bit better.
O: Yeah, I suppose I am. The album is, without question, bloated and overlong, but what blockbuster film these days isn’t? I mean, from mastermind Tuomas Holopainen’s perspective, once you’ve got an orchestra and a choir, why wouldn’t you also bring in a children’s choir? Still, the effect of the album being way too long and overstuffed with detail is that even though a song like “Last Ride of the Day” is nicely energetic (almost out of pop metal territory and onto slightly more respectable power metal turf), it comes so late in the running order that the mind has been sufficiently dulled to bombast as to make it largely run together with the previous few songs. Nevertheless, despite my fondness for the album, the one thing that I still cannot get behind is the penultimate song, the plodding epic “Song of Myself.”
The first six or seven minutes are fine, if a bit unmemorable, but the second half of the song is taken up with a recitation, by a number of friends and family of the band members, of a poem written by Holopainen, though modeled on the centerpiece of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Mostly the piece is just dull to listen to, but parts of it are filled with fairly revolting attempts at sympathy-inducing portraits of the hum and hustle of humanity. Perhaps the worst offender is “An obese girl enters an elevator with me / All dressed up fancy, a green butterfly on her neck / Terribly sweet perfume deafens me / She’s going to dinner alone / That makes her even more beautiful.” One hell of a far cry, I’m sure you’ll agree, from Whitman’s “All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses / And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”
O: Exactly. Still, the album finally comes to a close with the title track which is so resolutely and defiantly uncool that it redeems most of the pomposity of what precedes it. “Imaginaerum” is an all-instrumental orchestral medley – yeah, a straight-up, old-goddamn-school medley – of songs and themes from the entire album. It’s basically the sound of a pit orchestra playing a curtain call for the actors in a play, which I imagine might be precisely how Holopainen et al. think of themselves. So, I suppose to the extent that these international rock stars are probably just giant nerds, I can be at peace with throwing some bones their way.
H: I’m glad to hear it, and I’m glad we’ve been able to talk you down a little. Please keep us in mind next time you get the shakes after dancing around your living room triumphantly to Yanni’s Live at the Acropolis.
O: Will do. Thanks a million.
[The woman hangs up the phone and exhales a deep, discouraged breath. She looks up at the poster of Fenriz and listlessly twirls an unsharpened pencil between her fingers. She glances at the clock on her desk: barely ten-thirty. “I’m getting too old for this shit,” she mutters, to no one in particular. Exeunt.]